Miracles

Miracles: What Are They?

Have you noticed how often the word miracle is used these days? Skin creams that make us look younger; computer technology; the transition of a nation from oppression to freedom; what a quarterback needs to pull off for his team to have a winning season. All these are called miracles today. Anything that takes extreme effort or which amazes people is now a miracle. I’m still amazed that airplanes stay in the air. But is that a miracle?

To begin our discussion we’ll first put forth a definition. To clarify the nature of a miracle will also require making distinctions in God’s activities in creation. Then we’ll respond to objections to the possibility of miracles. Finally, we’ll consider their apologetic use.

So, what is a miracle? In his book, All the Miracles of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer said that a miracle is “some extraordinary work of deity transcending the ordinary powers of nature and wrought in connection with the ends of revelation.”{1} Notice the three elements: miracles are supernatural, or the work of deity; they transcend or override natural law; and they are part of God’s means of revealing His nature and purposes to us.

In Acts. 2:22, Peter speaks of the “miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through” Jesus. This reference to miracles can also be translated power. Miracles demonstrate the supernatural power of God over nature and evil forces. This power was seen in Jesus’ healing the sick; calming the storm; and raising people from the dead. Such events occurred in opposition to the normal course of nature; they could only be done by a supernatural power.

The word wonders refers to the response the miracles evoked in the observers, a response of astonishment and fear. Observers knew they had seen something out of the ordinary, something that in its greatness could even be threatening to them.

Still a third word used by Peter in Acts 2:22 points to the revelatory purpose of miracles. There, Peter referred to the signs of Jesus. This word stresses that aspect of miracles which draws attention to the significance of the event. Signs point to or reveal something else.

First, they indicated a relationship between the miracle worker and God. In John 5:36 Jesus said that his works were evidence that he had been sent by God. Second, they pointed to a fuller activity of God still to come. As one writer said: “The power Jesus exhibited was a foretaste of the power to be revealed at the end of the age.”{2}

Also, miracles are revelatory themselves in that they reveal the nature of God. Jesus came to reveal the Father to us. He said he was the Savior, and he showed he was the Savior by doing saving things. He healed diseases; he delivered the demon-possessed; he saved from the fury of the storm.

So, miracles are from God; they override nature; and they reveal God. They aren’t simply amazing events. When just about anything amazing is called a miracle simply because it’s amazing, real miracles lose their significance.

Miracles and Providence

The word miracle is used so often and to describe so many things that it’s lost its power. One of the reasons events are called miracles which shouldn’t be–at least by Christians–is that we want to give due honor to God for His work in our lives. This is how it should be. However, in order to give miracles their due, we should distinguish the different kinds of activity of God in this world.

We can think of God’s involvement in three categories. First, what we call providence, which is God’s ongoing work in sustaining the universe He created and the people in it. He keeps the stars in place; He provides for our physical needs; and He is active in the governing of societies. People have come to learn that things work a certain way, whether they are believers in God or not. No explicit belief in God is necessary to explain such things. Events on this level are not miracles.

Second, God is active in what we might call special providence. “Special providences,” said theologian Louis Berkhof, “are special combinations in the order of events, as in the answer to prayer, in deliverance out of trouble, and in all instances in which grace and help come in critical circumstances.”{3} God’s hand is “visible” in a sense to Christians who have watched all the pieces to one or more of life’s puzzles fall into place in a very special way.

Our move to Texas to work with Probe is an example. When we survey all the events that led up to our move, we recognize that God had to have been involved. But that’s because we set these events in the context of the thinking, the decisions, and the prayers of people who sought God’s will. However, people who aren’t inclined to see God working in our lives would see nothing supernatural about such events. They might simply see that we made a decision to move, the leadership of Probe and our church concurred, and a bunch of other people who support us agreed. Is this type of occurrence a miracle? In my opinion it isn’t. Although God was involved in a special way, the laws of nature weren’t transcended.

The third category of God’s involvement is miracles that we defined earlier as events, which are supernatural in origin, transcend or violate natural laws, and serve a revelatory function in God’s redemptive work. Here the hand of God is clearly visible to anyone who doesn’t deliberately refuse to believe. The event is contrary to the normal course of nature; no scientific explanation is possible. Of a purported miracle, we might ask this question: Is it impossible that the event could have taken place without God’s special intervention to alter the inevitable course of nature?

These three categories are not rigidly divided. They form more of a continuum. The distinguishing mark is the visibility of God’s hand in a given event. Is He in the background, simply maintaining His created order? Or has He manipulated certain events to a certain end without making His presence clearly seen by all? Or has He acted so powerfully in the realm of nature that there is no other reasonable explanation?

The purpose of such considerations is that we might not use the word miracle too lightly. To accomplish their role, miracles must remain distinct from that which is simply amazing.

Philosophical Attacks: Miracles and Natural Law

Miracles have come under attack for centuries now. In short, objectors seem to assume that our lives’ experience is normative. With respect to environment, it is assumed that what we see in nature is all there is or can be. With respect to time, also, critics say that our experience today determines what could have happened yesterday, or that our limitations do not allow us to know what happened in the past. Let’s consider first the question of nature, and then at the problem of historical knowledge with respect to miracles.

Miracles came under heavy attack during the Enlightenment by deists and atheists, and later by liberal churchmen. In the heady days of the rise of science, many came to see miracles as violations of natural law. To the rationalists of that day, such a violation was an impossibility. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, put it this way: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, . . . is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.”{4}

This raises two questions. First, are natural laws inviolable? Second, how do we interpret the evidence?

First, the question of natural law. Some critics believe simply that there is no power higher than nature and thus no power that could supersede the laws of nature. This is naturalism, a philosophical belief that can’t itself be proved by what is seen in nature. This is a philosophical assumption, and we shouldn’t be put off by it. We believe that God exists, and being the creator of the natural laws, He is above them Himself and able to alter them. They don’t. To undermine the possibility of miracles, naturalists must prove there is no God to perform them. On the other hand, if we can show that non-natural events did or have occurred, the naturalist will have to find some explanation in his worldview for them.

Other critics may not argue from an atheistic standpoint, but they hold that a universe in which natural laws can be broken is inherently unstable. If miracles occurred, all would be chaos. We answer that if God is powerful enough to create nature and to override its laws, He is also powerful enough to keep the rest of nature in order.

Thus, the reality of natural law is no deterrent to miracles.

Second, how do we weigh the evidence for and against miracles? What about Hume’s objection that there is more evidence against miracles than for them? First, the abundant evidence of order at most suggests that miracles are the rare exception. But this is what makes them so significant! Consider, too, that the proper use of evidences includes being open to new evidences, including those of unusual occurrences. Second, evidences should be weighed, not just counted. So, to illustrate, we are more likely to accept the testimony of one person known for honesty and integrity over the evidence of five known liars. The quality of the evidence is what counts.

As I noted earlier, arguments against miracles based upon the workings of nature typically reveal an underlying philosophy of naturalism. But there is another kind of objection to miracles. That is, that history can’t bear the weight of proving miracles occurred in the past. We’ll turn our attention to that objection next.

Philosophical Attacks: Miracles and History

We have looked briefly at David Hume’s argument against miracles based on natural law. On the surface, Hume’s argument was against proving a miracle, not against the reality of miracles per se. His main point was that we can’t know whether a miracle occurred because our knowledge is gleaned from evidences, and the preponderance of evidence is always for natural law and against miracles. He believed that it would be more likely, that, for example, all the witnesses lied than that a person was raised from the dead. How was Hume so sure of this? “Because,” he said, ‘that has never been observed in any age or country.”{5} So, when someone said they saw a miracle, Hume said they were deluded or were lying because no one’s ever seen a miracle! It seems clear that Hume’s argument against knowing whether a miracle occurred was based upon his prior conviction that miracles don’t occur.

Of course, if no evidence could be sufficient to prove miracles in the present, records of miracles in history were surely faulty. If we don’t experience miracles today, Hume thought, there’s no reason to think others did in the past.

Anthony Flew, a contemporary philosopher, has built on Hume’s argument. He says there must be uniformity between the present (the time of the historian) and the past (when the event took place) to make any reasonable interpretation of the past. This is called the rule of analogy. The regularities of nature are part of our present experience, and we must assume they were the experience of people in the past.

This argument presupposes that there are no miracles occurring now. How do critics know this? Either they must be omniscient, or they must begin with a naturalistic worldview which by definition precludes miracles. One also wonders how Flew could accept any unique, singular event in history, such as the origins of the universe and of life, if regularity is a requirement for historical knowledge.

Other critics say the problem is with the study of history per se. They argue that historical knowledge is too subjective for us to know what really happened in the past. Our own values, worldviews and prejudices color our understanding so that there aren’t any historically objective facts. But if this is so, the critic’s own judgment about historical knowledge is too colored by his own values, etc., to be taken as objective fact. As philosopher Frances Beckwith notes, this also means that no interpretation of history can be considered bad, and that there is no reason to revise history (except perhaps for the historian’s amusement).{6}

It would seem that those who deny miracles are typically predisposed against them. If this is the case, is there any apologetic use for miracles? Let’s look at this next.

The Apologetic Use of Miracles

“Miracle was once the foundation of all apologetics, then it became an apologetic crutch, and today it is not infrequently regarded as a cross for apologetics to bear.” So said a German theologian in the early part of this century.{7} While it’s true that evidential apologetics emphasizes the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus, miracles in general play little role in apologetics today.

What’s the proper role of miracles in apologetics? First, of course, Christians need to answer the charge that miracles can’t happen, and that the Bible, therefore, isn’t true. Miracles are an integral part of Christianity; to side-step objections to them by downplaying their role is to abandon the cause.

But what about persuasion? In Scripture, were miracles used as evidence to persuade unbelievers?

We see in the New Testament that miracles did serve as evidence and they brought some people to belief. When Jesus raised Lazarus “many of the Jews . . . put their faith in Him” (Jn.11:45; see also Acts 2:22-41; 5:12-16; 6:7,8; 8:6-8; Rom. 15:18,19). But note that some went to the Pharisees and ratted on Jesus.At other times Jesus chastised the Pharisees because they believed neither His words nor His works (Jn.10:22-32; 15:24). Not everyone believed in response to miracles (cf. Acts 14:3,4).

Remember that Jesus didn’t do miracles for people who had no faith-such as the people in His hometown (Matt. 13:58)–or for those who insisted that He prove Himself to them-such as the Jewish leaders (Matt. 16:1-4). When He ministered in His hometown, for instance, people took offense at Him, and Matthew says, “He did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith”. Matthew also reports that Jesus refused the Jewish leaders when they came to Him “and tested Him by asking Him to show them a sign from heaven” (16:1-4)

No, Jesus’ miracles were done in response to faith. But this wasn’t necessarily explicit faith in Jesus as Savior. It could have been simply the openness to God of people who were willing to hear. By doing miracles, Jesus identified himself as the Messiah who had been prophesied.{8} People either recognized the fulfillment of prophecy or simply recognized the hand of God, or both.

Someone might ask, even if people won’t accept miracles, might they not respond to the simple preaching of the cross? Remember that miracles were part of God’s revelation of His redemptive activity. They were set in the context of the spoken message of Jesus. People who refused the spoken word also refused to accept the evidence of miracles. As Abraham said to the rich man in Jesus’ parable, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (Lk.16:31)

Thus, in answer to the question whether miracles can bring people to belief in Christ, they can if the deep-down knowledge of God that Paul said we all have (Rom.1:20) is first awakened. But for those who have deliberately shut God out of their lives and their worldview, miracles won’t do any more to convince them than hearing Scripture will.

Miracles, then, provide evidence for the identity of Jesus and for the truth of the message He proclaimed especially when paired with prophecy. They should thus be a part of the package of evidences we employ. We will not convince everyone of the truth of Jesus Christ. But if God chose miracles as confirming evidence, we should not shun them.

Notes

1. Herbert Lockyer, All the Miracles of the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), 13-14.

2. Colin Brown, ed. New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), s.v. “Might,” by O. Betz

3. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 168.

4. Douglas Geivett and Gary Habermas, eds. In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Activity in History (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 33

5. Ibid., 33.

6. Ibid., 89-90

7. Colin Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 281.

8. Ibid., 286-87.

©2001 Probe Ministries.




One Minute After Death – A Christian Understanding of What Happens at Death

Rusty Wright examines the question of what happens to us after we die.  Many Christians have questions about this and there is a lot of information floating around on the topic.  Rusty applies a biblical worldview perspective to explain a distinctly Christian view of this topic we all have an interest in.  When we examine the Bible, we can develop a clearer picture of God’s answer to this question.

This article is also available in Spanish.

“I was dying. I heard the doctor pronounce me dead. As I lay on the operating table of the large hospital, a loud, harsh buzzing began to reverberate in my head. At the same time, I sensed myself moving quickly through a long, dark tunnel. Then suddenly I found myself outside my own physical body! Like a spectator, I watched the doctor’s desperate attempts to revive my corpse.

“Soon…I encountered a ‘being’ of light who showed me an instant replay of my life and helped me evaluate my past deeds.

“Finally I learned that my time to die had not yet come and that I had to return to my body. I resisted, for I had found my afterlife experience to be quite pleasant. Yet somehow I was reunited with my physical body and lived.”{1} Many people have reported near-death experiences (NDEs). What do they mean? What happens when we die?

While writing a book on this subject, I interviewed people with fascinating stories. A Kansas woman developed complications after major surgery. She sensed herself rising out of her body, soaring through space, and hearing heavenly voices before returning to her body.

An Arizona man in a coma five months after a motorcycle accident said he saw his deceased father, who spoke with him.

Various theories attempt to explain these NDEs. Physiological explanations suggest a physical cause–perhaps a blow to the head or lack of oxygen in the brain. Pharmacological explanations point to drugs or anesthetics. Psychological explanations propose mental causes such as defense mechanisms or wish fulfillment. Spiritual explanations cite NDEs as previews of the afterlife, either genuine (if divine) or distorted (if demonic). Applications of these theories can be complex.{2} During my sophomore year at Duke University, the student in the room next to mine was struck by lightning and killed instantly. For days our fraternity was in a state of shock. People were asking questions such as, “Where is Mike now?” “Is there life after death?” “If so, what is it like?”

LIFE AFTER DEATH?

Can we know whether there is life after death? What method would we use to find out?

The experimental method, useful for scientific questions, is inadequate for evaluating NDEs. It is impossible in medical emergencies to establish the required controlled situations and repeatability. Scientists also have no mind-reading machines to evaluate mental/spiritual experiences. And finding volunteers for NDE experiments would be difficult.

The experiential method receives mixed reviews. NDEs can provide useful information, but the mind can trick us. Dreams, fantasies, hallucinations, drug trips, drunkenness, states of shock–all can evoke mental images that seem real but aren’t.

Some suggest a spiritual method for evaluating these phenomena. What if we could find a spiritual authority, someone with trustworthy credentials, to tell us the truth about afterlife issues?

Following Mike’s death, I explained to the men in our fraternity that an increasing number of educated men and women believe that Jesus Christ is a trustworthy spiritual authority. Once I, myself, was skeptical of Christianity, but examining the evidences for Jesus’ resurrection convinced me He could be trusted. I found the resurrection of Christ one of the best attested facts of history.{3} If Jesus died and came back from the dead, He could accurately tell us what death and the afterlife are like. The fact that He successfully predicted His own resurrection helps us believe that He will tell us the truth about the afterlife. What did Jesus and those He taught say about it?

WHAT IS THE AFTERLIFE LIKE?

Jesus indicated that the afterlife will be personal.

Our personalities will not be annihilated. We won’t blend into the great impersonal ocean of cosmic consciousness, as some propose. We will continue to exist. We will not become angels, as others suggest. Angels are “ministering spirits” sent out to serve believers in Christ.{4} They are already-created beings, distinct from humans.{5} At the moment Jesus died on the cross He cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

Earlier, a thief who hung on a cross next to His said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responded, “I tell you the truth. today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).

Jesus believed that His own spirit was going to be with God. He also believed that the thief (apparently the thief’s soul or spirit) would be with Him in heaven that same day. Clearly, Jesus was not thinking of death as annihilation but as a separation from the physical body.

Elsewhere Jesus implied that our personalities somehow remain intact after death. He once said, “Many will come. . .and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–the forefathers of the Jewish nation–had died centuries earlier. Yet Jesus, speaking about a future event, mentioned them by name. He implied that their personalities were maintained.

Did you ever wonder if you’ll be able to see departed loved ones after you die? Apparently those who participate in eternal life will be able to recognize each other. King David, who reigned over the ancient nation of Israel around 1000 B.C., spoke of being with his dead son again.{6} Jesus’ disciples once caught a glimpse of Moses and Elijah, two long-dead heroes of Israel, and recognized them. {7}

Jesus taught that eternal life will be relational.

Life in heaven will focus on a personal relationship with Him and on meaningful relationships with each other. These will be the warmest and most enriching relationships we could ever have.

Before His death, Jesus promised His disciples that one day they would be with Him again: “I am going. . .to prepare a place for you. And. . .I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-3).

Paul, a first-century believer in Jesus, wrote about his “desire to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).

Jesus defined life in heaven when He said, “This is eternal life: that they [people who believe in Him] may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). In other words, eternal life will involve getting to know God and the meaning of life better.

Eternal life will be enjoyable.

Paul also wrote, “No mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (l Corinthians 2:9).

John, Jesus’ disciple, wrote, “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Another New Testament writer encourages us to “fix our eyes on Jesus…who, for the joy set before him endured the cross…and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Eternal life with God will be joy that defies description and exceeds our imagination.

Life after death will be eternal.

It will never end. Have you ever watched a movie so good you wished it would never end?

Have you ever savored a dessert so sweet, you wished it would last and last? Have you ever had a relationship so fulfilling you hoped it would go on forever? Eternal life will be that good, and better! It will never end. “God has given us eternal life,” wrote John, “and this life is in His Son” (l John 5:11).

Jesus taught that eternal life involves all of the positive and none of the negative. God loves us and desires only the best for us now and in eternity.

How sad that some people don’t take advantage of all He has provided.

DON’T STOP!

Chattanooga cardiologist Maurice Rawlings, M.D., tells of a patient who had a cardiac arrest in Dr. Rawlings’ office. Throughout the attempted resuscitation, the patient faded in and out. Each time the doctor interrupted the heart massage, the patient appeared to die again.

When the man came to, he screamed, “I am in hell!” A look of sheer terror clouded his face. “Don’t stop!” he begged. “Don’t you understand? I am in hell. Each time you quit I go back to hell! Don’t let me go back to hell!” The patient survived and put his faith in Christ to take away his sins and secure his place in heaven.{8} The place the Bible calls hell, or hades, is the current home of those who do not accept Jesus’ gift of forgiveness. It is a place of constant, conscious torment.{9} Hades is not the final dwelling place of those who die without a personal relationship with Christ. John says these will be judged at the “great white throne” judgment. Since no one’s deeds are sufficient to earn eternal life, those without Christ’s pardon will be cast into the “lake of fire.”{10} Jesus said that “the eternal fire…has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).

Not a pleasant subject. But remember, God does not want you to perish in hell. He loves you and wants you to spend eternity with Him. Not without Him.{11} Paul wrote that God our Savior wants all people to be saved (or made safe from the consequences of sin, which is separation from God). He wants us to know Him because He is truth.{12} God sent Jesus Christ, His Son, to pay the penalty for our sins (attitudes and actions that fall short of God’s perfection). Jesus literally went through hell for us. We simply need to receive His free gift of forgiveness–we can never earn it–to be guaranteed eternal life. “Whoever hears my word, Jesus says, “and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

According to the latest figures, the death rate in this country is still 100 percent. Every day on this planet about 140,000 people die.

What most of us are interested in is not “What happens to people when they die?” but “What will happen to me when I die?”

Some seek to avoid the issue of death or to insulate themselves from concern through popularity, possessions, pursuits, or power. Many feel that whatever belief makes you feel comfortable is OK. Do any of these descriptions fit you?

A nightclub near Cincinnati was packed one evening. Suddenly a busboy stepped onto the stage, interrupted the program, and announced that the building was on fire. Perhaps because they saw no smoke, many of the guests remained seated. Maybe they thought it was a joke, a part of the show. When they finally saw the smoke, it was too late. More than 150 people died as the nightclub burned.

As you consider death, are you believing what you want to believe or what the evidence shows is true? Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25).

Place your faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior, and you, too, will live even if you die.

Notes

1. Adapted from Raymond A. Moody, Jr., M.D., Life After Life (New York: Bantam, 1976), pp. 21-22.
2. For a more complete discussion, see the book from which this article is adapted: Rusty Wright, The Other Side of Life (Singapore: Campus Crusade Asia Limited, 1979, 1994).
3. See, for example, Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972).
4. Hebrews 1:14.
5. Hebrews 2:16.
6. 2 Samuel 12:23.
7. Matthew 17:14.
8. Maurice Rawlings, M.D., Beyond Death’s Door (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1978), pp. 19-20.
9. Luke 16:23-24.
10. Revelatlon 20:11-15.
11. John 3:16.
12. I Timothy 2:3-4

© 1996 Rusty Wright. All rights reserved.
This article appeared in Pursuit magazine, Vol. V, No. 2.




Why Care about Theology?

What is your response when you hear the word theology? Some people tend to cringe and think that such a word is of use only to the seminary student or, at the most, their pastor. Have you given much thought to how this word may apply to your life? If so, please continue your pursuit by thinking along with us. If not, we hope to encourage you to begin to take theology a little more seriously than you may have before.

Just what is theology? Literally, it is derived from a combination of two Greek terms meaning “a word about God.” Eventually it was employed to refer not only to a study of the nature and attributes of God, but to the whole range of Christian doctrine. Augustus H. Strong, a theologian of the early twentieth century, offered a definition that is even broader. He wrote, “Theology is the science of God and of the relations between God and the universe.”(1) So theology is concerned with a very wide range of subjects, such as the Bible, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, man, salvation, angels, the church, and the end times. Or, we can even say our theology pertains to all of life.

Sound theology is very important in the life of a Christian. History shows us this has always been true. From heresies in the very early church, through the upheaval of the Reformation, to the “Jesus Seminar” of more recent times, Christians have been challenged to give serious attention to matters of theology. And there are important reasons for each of us to devote increased attention to it at this time in history. Historic orthodox theology is currently being questioned, if not attacked, from both outside and inside our churches and institutions. Several examples will demonstrate this.

Contemporary Illustrations

A few years ago an infamous movie entitled The Last Temptation of Christ drew national and international attention because of its blasphemous caricature of Christ. The non-orthodox reports of the Jesus Seminar, a gathering of various scholars, have received the attention of both theological journals and popular magazines such as Time and Newsweek. The conjectures of New Age advocates such as Shirley MacLaine include heretical views of God, Christ, and other facets of theology. Process theologians, who teach at many seminaries, teach a doctrine of God that includes the idea that “the world can be thought of as the body of God,” and the notion of a changing God who is as dependent on the world as the world is on Him.(2) Recent books from within evangelical circles include titles such as The Openness of God, which “asserts that such classical doctrines as God’s immutability, impassibility and foreknowledge demand reconsideration.”(3) More orthodox evangelical writers have written such books as No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? Obviously, the title indicates that the author is concerned about what he believes is a collapse of theology.(4) The Body, a book by Charles Colson, decries what Colson sees as a drift to a consumer-oriented church that, among other things, isn’t concerned about matters of theological truth(5).

Such illustrations serve to alert us to the need for more theological reflection, not less. These are challenging times for theology!

Who Are the Theologians?

Do you know anyone who can be called a theologian? You probably immediately begin to think of a seminary professor or an erudite pastor you may know. But is it possible you can be called a theologian? If someone were to ask you what you believe about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and many other doctrines, chances are you would answer their questions. Thus you are stating your theology; you are, at some level, a theologian. There are certainly “professional” theologians who spend their lives thinking about and teaching theology, but theology is not just for schools and seminaries; it is for life. It is for you and every other member of Christ’s body, the church.

In the fairly recent past in this country theology was spoken of in both the academy and the church. David Wells, a contemporary professional theologian who is concerned about recapturing such unity, has written that at one time theology encompassed three essential elements: “(1) a confessional element, (2) reflection on this confession, and (3) the cultivation of a set of virtues that are grounded in the first two elements.”(6) “Confession, in this understanding, is what the Church believes. It is what crystallizes into doctrine.” Thus we are to confess our theology based on the inspired Word of God, the Bible. Then we are to wrestle intellectually with what it means to hold such theology in the present world. Finally, we are to wisely apply the truth found in the first two steps.(8) It appears that too often such steps are lacking among all but a few contemporary Christians.

For more than two years my wife and I visited worship services at many churches in the Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas metroplex, which some refer to as a major part of the “Bible belt.” The churches represent a wide spectrum of denominational affiliations, and some are non-denominational. Our visits left us with many impressions, some of which are very positive. But one of several concerns is that too many of these churches emphasized appeasement rather than proclamation. That is, there was concern for relating to the “seeker” at the expense of teaching the believer; or there was an emphasis on “how to” sermons that contained little doctrinal substance; or there was stress on what is called contemporary Christian music coupled with lyrics that were often void of meaning; or there were statements of trite cliches that can do little, if anything, to lead the church to maturity. In other words, much was done to appease the “wants” of the people and little was done that would give the impression that theology is important in these churches.

On the other hand, those few churches that were the exceptions to such emphases boldly stated theological truth and genuinely worshipped God in the process. Their praise had meaning; their prayers were directed to the holy and sovereign God; their sermons contained truth that encouraged the church toward maturity; and even though individual “wants” were not stressed, true needs were met because theology for all of life had been proclaimed.

Which of these accounts is descriptive of your church? Does your church summon you to theological maturity? Or are you caught in a web of appeasement? The writer of Hebrews implored his readers to “press on to maturity” (Heb. 6:1). May God help us do the same!

Theology in the World

A 1994 U.S.News & World Report poll of religious beliefs in the U.S. indicates that “about 95 percent of Americans say they believe in God or a universal spirit, and about 60 percent say they attend religious services regularly.”(9) In addition, “more than 80 percent, including 71 percent of college graduates, believe the Bible is the inspired word of God.”(10) And “68 percent of Americans are members of a church or synagogue.”(11) But do such statistics mean that sound theology plays a significant part in our lives? For example, could it be “that the surprising growth of church membership rolls in recent decades may signify the ascendancy of shallower, less demanding forms of religion with wider appeal?”(12) We believe the answer to this question is, “Yes!” It appears that too many Christians are unwilling to face the demands of theological thinking, and shallowness is the result. Good theology requires contemplation, study, and even debate. It is demanding, and it is certainly not shallow.

Since we are living in a culture that believes “anything goes,” distinctive statements concerning our theology are increasingly necessary. Most people are willing to accept you as a Christian if your beliefs (i.e., your theology) are not narrow. If you are willing, for example, to state that Christianity is one of many legitimate paths to salvation, you will be accepted. But if you state that the gospel is the only path to salvation, you may be labeled as a narrow-minded bigot. Although a large majority of the people in this country claim to be religious, a large portion of that majority is still thinking within a relativistic worldview that attempts to reject absolutes. The exclusive claims of Christianity don’t fit within such a worldview.

This was brought out clearly for me during an open forum in the lobby of a dormitory on a large state university campus. For more than two hours one of my colleagues and I attempted to answer questions concerning Christianity from approximately a hundred college students. Their questions led us in many directions. We discussed social, political, apologetic, and many other issues. But the subject that disturbed them most was salvation through Jesus Christ. When I declared that Jesus was the only way to God, many of the students expressed their strong disagreement and even anger. One student was indignant because he realized that my statement concerning Christ logically meant that his belief in an American Indian deity was wrong. Even some Christian students were uncomfortable with my assertion. They had an uneasiness about it because it seemed to be too intolerant. Thus I had to quickly remind them that Christ himself said He is the only way to God. I was not making a claim about Christ; I was simply telling them what He said about himself.

Those Christian students are indicative of the need for more demanding thought concerning theology. To claim to be a Christian and at the same time be immersed in the shallow pond of theological tolerance is antithetical. Perhaps the non-Christian students have an excuse; they don’t know better. But the Christian students should know better; they need training in theology. And the same is true for all of us.

An Example of the Need

People continue to seek Jesus. But which Jesus? Is it the Jesus who was born of a virgin, who performed awesome miracles, who claimed to be God, who died on a cross for our sins, who rose from the dead, who ascended into heaven, who said He would return? Or is it the Jesus who died as a disillusioned revolutionary peasant? Or is it the Jesus who was a great religious teacher on a par with Buddha?

All these questions are very old, but at the same time they are very contemporary. And they indicate that theology, in this case the theology of Christ, continues to be important. As Christians, we are still challenged to think theologically. Long-held, foundational, orthodox theology is being contested, not just within academia, but in more public venues. Let’s consider a prominent example.

In 1991 a book was published by the title of The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.(13) John Dominic Crossan, the author, then published a second book in 1994 entitled, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.(14) Then the third book in his trilogy about Jesus, The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images,(15) was also published in 1994. Such titles are filled with indications that Crossan is anything but a believer in an orthodox doctrine of Christ. Jesus may have been a Mediterranean Jewish peasant, but was He something much more? The second title indicates that the author believes there is need for a new biography of Jesus, so he has provided it. And the third title boldly asserts that the “original sayings” of Jesus have been isolated from all other sayings so that we can discover the “essential” Jesus.

I have brought Crossan and his books to our attention because he is a prominent member of what is called the Jesus Seminar. This much-publicized seminar is composed of scholars who “used to meet regularly to discuss and vote on the originality of Jesus’ sayings (198592) and are now evaluating his actions and deeds in a similar manner.”(16)

Crossan’s view of Jesus is exposed in a meandering passage that follows his perspective of the surrounding Roman Empire in which Jesus lived. He writes:

Jesus lived, against the systemic injustice and structural evil of that situation, an alternative open to all who would accept it: a life of open healing and shared eating, of radical itinerancy, programmatic homelessness, and fundamental egalitarianism, of human contact with discrimination, and of divine contact without hierarchy. He also died for that alternative. That is my understanding of what Jesus’ words and deeds were all about.(17)

Please note that Crossan has painted a picture of Jesus as a revolutionary whose primary concern was with things of this life. In fact his last phrase, “divine contact without hierarchy” (a confusing idea), is as close as he comes to stating that Jesus was anything more than a political radical. There is no mention of Jesus as the sacrificial Savior who takes away sin and gives eternal life.

In light of the fact that such perspectives are in vogue, and in light of the fact that they are taught to future pastors and professors, can we afford to leave theology in the back rooms of our minds?

Practical Theology

A recent book asserts that God “learns something from what transpires” in this world. The same text also asserts that “God comes to know events as they take place,” and that we should see God “as receptive to new experiences and as flexible in the way he works toward his objectives in the world.”(18)

What is your reaction to such statements? If you have a reaction at all, you are to be commended. You are thinking theologically. As was true with me, your doctrine of God may have been challenged, and you may want to ask the author various questions. Those questions would probably have a lot to do with how you perceive God in your daily life. For example, you may want to ask if God is somehow dependent on you. If so, in what way?

Such thoughts demonstrate that theology is practical. If we stop a few minutes and concentrate, it is not difficult to see that our theology affects us, whether we are conscious of it or not. Let’s consider a few questions that can lead us to see how this is true.

 

1. If God used His awesome imagination to create the universe out of nothing, what is implied when the Bible states that humans are made in His image?
We can also use our God-given imaginations to create, not out of nothing, but out of what God supplied.

 

2. Is the Holy Spirit a person or a thing?
The Holy Spirit is a person within the godhead, the triunity. As a person, He interacts with us daily, and we can be filled with “Him,” not “it.”

 

3. If I accept Christ’s sacrificial death for me, can my salvation be taken away?
No! “You have been saved” (Eph. 2:8) for eternity. You are secure as a member of God’s family.

 

4. Was Jesus literally resurrected from the dead?
Yes! He has conquered death for us. “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).

 

5. What is man’s nature?
Man is made in God’s image. But his image has been marred; thus our very nature inclines us to sin. Yet, though our genes, society, and other factors may influence us to sin, God holds us personally responsible to accept or reject His gracious offer of sin’s remedy in Christ.

 

6. Do angels really exist?
Yes! Evil angels are in league with Satan and are actively opposed to God’s purposes. Good angels are doing the bidding of God in the spiritual realm. Both evil and good angels can serve to remind us that there is both a physical and a spiritual dimension.

 

7. Is the church a building?
No! The church is the redeemed people of God, of all the ages, living and dead; the church is also called the “body of Christ.” As such it is a living, dynamic carrier of the grace and power of God.

 

8. Is Jesus returning in power and authority for His church?
Yes! The truth of this brings security and hope in the midst of a troubled world.

 

In a cursory way these questions have touched the major categories of theology. It is our hope that you will study such categories seriously. What you believe about them is important to you and those who follow after you. Theology matters!

Notes

1. Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge, Penn.: Judson Press, 1907), 1.
2. Ronald H. Nash, The Concept of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1983), 23-25.
3. Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger, The Openness of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1994), cover notes.
4. David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993).
5. Charles Colson, with Ellen Santilli Vaughn, The Body (Dallas: Word, 1992).
6. Wells, No Place for Truth, 98.
7. Ibid., 99-100.
8. Ibid.
9. Jeffery L. Sheler, “Spiritual America,” U.S.News & World Report (4 April 1994), 50.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).
14. John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).
15. John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).
16. Ibid., 22.
17. Ibid., 12.
18. Richard Rice, in The Openness of God, 16.

©1995 Probe Ministries.